One of the downsides to working adjacent to the dance floor in a very busy bar every Friday night is the music. It’s loud; ear-shatteringly, clavicle-shakingly loud, yes; but even worse than that, Friday Night means an unbroken, beatmatched stream of contemporary (read: released no more than 18 months ago) dance music from 10 to 4. I have never had much enthusiasm for any dance music created after about 1975, but the stuff before 1975 is my favorite stuff ever (and I have the band to prove it). So it is with disappointment and confusion that I can report straight from the front lines that the youth of today is not the least bit interested in hearing anything more recent than post-K-Fed Britney.
Even worse, the DJs that work my shift play pretty much the exact same 6 hours’ worth of material, in pretty much the exact same order, every week. On a certain level, this makes sense: the bar is packed every Friday, so it clearly ain’t broke and is thus in no need of fixing. But I suspect that I would quickly tire of the same playlist week after week even if I made it myself, so needless to say that even with $100 earplugs, I get pretty strangly by around 2am most Fridays.
I gradually lost touch with popular music sometime around my 30th birthday — not proud of it, but it is the truth — so for a long time I had no idea who was responsible for any of these irritating, repetitive, tuneless sonic abortions that all the kids were going nuts for. It didn’t take long for me to become familiar with the tunes, or to learn the words, or to notice that some of them were (relatively) better than others, but it all existed as a nameless, faceless, thumping that served as just one more aggravation in a room that often seems to have them coming in the windows.
Then one morning in the course of my official duties at work, I saw a five-minute capsule history on the life and career of Rihanna, the statuesque, usually well-oiled belter from Barbados, and a little quick math in my head determined that roughly 6 out of every 10 songs our annoying DJs play every Friday bear her name. Another 5 out of 10 are credited to the Black Eyed Peas, as I learned when I watched their awful trainwreck of a Super Bowl Halftime show last year, and Kanye, Ke$ha and Katy Perry — who I will resist the urge to call KKK despite their comparably destructive influence — fight for the table scraps. (Figures approximate.)
Once I learned that “Rude Boy” and “The Only Girl In the World” and “S & M” and “Disturbia” and “What’s My Name?” and “Please Don’t Stop The Music” were all by the same person, and that person’s name was Rihanna, I also realized that those were the tunes in the set that the people liked the most and I, for my part, hated the least. I mean seriously, we can’t get one James Brown tune or one P-Funk jam in a whole 6-hour set of dance music? These kids today, I swear to god.
In any case, Rihanna is indisuputably in charge of the world’s dance floors at the moment, and her newest single, “We Found Love,” just marked its tenth consecutive week at the top of the Billboard chart. It also perfectly illustrates why I can’t stand any of this new music: it takes a standard-issue 1995 house beat, the kind I couldn’t stand when it was the inescapable soundtrack to dotcom San Francisco (1.0), and adds Rihanna’s admittedly striking voice singing about having sex at a homeless shelter or some such nonsense (you’d think that at Hiroshimaesque volume levels, we’d at least understand the words).
I don’t much care for Rihanna’s music (was that not clear?), but I find her persona — what little I have gleaned of it from sidelong glances at magazine covers and having her lyrics jammed into my ears like part of an interrogation once a week and a look at her Twitter feed — completely fascinating. It appears to be built on being not just sexually attractive, a strategy that has worked for millennia and that I admit to being a sucker for, but being sexually intimidating.
Unlike all the pop stars (and models, and actresses, and other sexualized performers) of my youth, distaste for whose work I could at times overcome in the service of a brief daydream, I cannot imagine fantasizing about Rihanna because I don’t think I’m man enough. Even in my own wildest visions of skill and stamina, I’m not sure I could live up to Rihanna’s taskmasterly high standards as a lover, and I worry that she would then beat me senseless with something made of rubber before choking me out with her long, glistening, high-booted legs.
I mean, she cuts a pretty imposing figure, right? Google says she’s 5-foot-8, but before I looked that up I would have sworn she was 6’6″, 6’7″. Roughly 80% of her songs are laundry lists of her considerable carnal demands set to music that sounds specifically designed to be played while doing it doggy-style under a strobelight. (The rest are ballads.) I can’t find a picture of her doing anything but scowling or standing like she’s bestriding an invisible horse, and between the red wigs and the bondage wear and the threateningly frank lyrics, I’m afraid if she got me alone she would swallow me whole like a python. Even Madonna at her “Justify My Love”/metal-bound “Sex” book raunchiest never seemed like she might hurt you, but I wouldn’t even go to one of Rihanna’s shows without a MedicAlert bracelet and a living will.
Anyway, “We Found Love” is the culmination of a long-simmering campaign by Crappy House Music to take over Pop Music as a whole. As with so many trends gone bad, we can trace this one back to Madonna: her 1997 Ray of Light introduced wholly electronic, fully robotic backing tracks with lots of flanging, phasing, and 16-bar drumless breaks to the world’s pop starlets. As usual, Madonna’s version was pretty good, but it’s gradually and insidiously infected every record recorded in the last 15 years not involving Jack White in some capacity. Even hip-hop, which bravely kept the flame of funky dance music composed by humans playing instruments alive — albeit in sample form — has capitulated to lame, reverb-drenched Casio beats (see West, Kanye).
Not that it doesn’t make a certain kind of sense: who can afford a studio or a band or a songwriter in this economy and with the record industry cratering to boot? This way there are only two mouths to feed: the artist and the producer.
But for all her robotic beats and explicit lyrics and menacing bondagewear, looking over Rihanna’s discography I’m struck by how prolific she is: she’s put out an album every year since 2005, with the lone exception of 2008. An album a year was the industry norm until the mid-’80s — let us never forget that Jimi Hendrix released all three of his studio albums, the third one a double, in the space of 16 months — at which point the record companies gradually decided to space out their artists’ output to about an album every four or five years, the better to exploit every last potential single for every potential sale. (Prince’s whole name-change fiasco was a protest of that policy.) Since the industry has collapsed over the last ten years, it seems to have regained its appetite for more product, but not many artists seem to have gone back to generating material at that pace — people are all excited because Fiona Apple is releasing her first record since 2005. Her last one before that was from 1999. Who’d a thunk that between Rihanna and Fiona Apple, Rihanna would be the more old-fashioned?
And anyway, I protest too much. Much as I hate to admit it, I kind of love “We Found Love.” Taken as the sum of its parts, I hate everything about it, but that doesn’t stop me from singing the goddamn thing to myself. Cause the way I’m feeling, I just can’t deny…